Father Columba, if Brother Juan’s journey has been a long one on many fronts, as I remarked at his First Vows on Tuesday, yours I would characterize as an unexpected one. When you came to Mepkin for a retreat in 2013 on your way back to Ireland from a missionary trip to El Salvador, you came only for a retreat. It had been your custom to visit various monasteries over your long priestly ministry to keep the flame of love burning in your heart. You drew much sustenance from the great Western monastic tradition of spirituality. You were particularly attracted by the example and writings of the abbot of Maredsous, Columba Marmion, an Irish priest who became a Benedictine monk in Belgium. But you were very happy in your priestly ministry in Dublin and if you thought of a monastic vocation you always figured it would be to a Benedictine community. You were familiar with the Trappists, of course, but were never drawn to our more cloistered way of life.
Then you came to Mepkin and something started to stir within you. On the third day of your retreat you were walking up to the church for Compline and as you reached the piazza and started up the steps something moved you to ask: “Jesus, are you calling me to become a monk of Mepkin?” And you heard in your mind and your heart very clearly a simple “Yes”. It was totally unexpected. It was totally unplanned for. But instead of inspiring you with fear, or much less with revulsion, you heard it with the ears of love. You heard it as a call of God, and you have always tried to respond to God’s call in your life as a call of love and mercy. How all this was to work out would take much counsel and soul-searching and not a few ecclesiastical hoops to surmount. But you landed at Mepkin in January of 2016 after you had set up all things to take care of your 99 year old mother. Three months later she was called home to God on Easter Sunday and you spent a long time in grieving this loss and the loss of a nun a couple weeks later, who was like a second mother to you and who shared so much of your years of ministry with you.
As you emerged out of this long period of grieving and a shorter one of mental disorientation, you realized if you were to respond to God’s call to monastic life, you had to jump seriously into the water with full abandon. And so you have asked the community that you might take the next step and receive the white habit of a Cistercian-Trappist novice. We have said “Yes” to your request. And that led to a second request: the desire to take the name “Columba” in honor of the great early Irish monk by that name and in honor of your love for Columba Marmion.
What is this Cistercian way of life you are choosing? Over the course of your years in formation and beyond you will learn in depth what it means by experience and study. And this is as it should be. Nothing worthwhile yields its meaning at a first or a second or a third hearing. It uncovers its meaning by living it — and so I urge you, Father Jim, to live it, not to think it.
What I believe you will find as you live it, is what our Constitutions make clear.
Cistercian life is cenobitic, following Christ under a Rule and an abbot in a stable community which becomes a school of love.
Cistercian life revolves around the Liturgy where we hear the Word of God and respond in song and continue it in silent prayer.
Cistercian life is a life which leads to purity of heart and a continual mindfulness of God’s presence.
Cistercian life is a life of discipline and spiritual warfare, of humility and obedience, of simplicity and labor, of hospitality and a deep love of silence and solitude.
Cistercian life is a life where nothing is preferred to the praise of the Father’s glory, where all is done in conformity to the Gospel, our supreme law.
Cistercian life is a life shot through with hidden apostolic fruitfulness through our ministry of prayer.
Finally, as our Constitutions so marvelously express it, Cistercian life is a life wholly directed to bringing us into the most intimate union with Christ, since it is only through the experience of the personal love for the Lord Jesus that the specific gifts of the Cistercian vocation can flower.
What a wonderful life! What an inspiring call! What an amazing grace!
And so, Father Columba, I ask you: are you ready to enter upon such a life, such a call, such an amazing grace and to receive the habit of a Cistercian novice monk?